Critics often use the expression “check your brain at the door” for movies that are best enjoyed without thinking about their inherent ridiculousness. I’d like to coin the phrase, “check your morality at the door“ for Bad Words. The production has a gleefully amoral sensibility when it comes to what is socially acceptable to say in polite conversation. The story concerns Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman), a middle aged man who has strong-armed his way into a national spelling bee on a technicality. You must not have completed the 8th grade, the rules state. This junior high drop-out never did. Why he wants to compete in a children’s spelling bee is a bit of explanatory information that should be gleaned from watching the film.
Bad Words has a profoundly cynical overtone. The humor is pitch black so many viewers will understandably not warm up to its prickly charms. Guy walks through this chronicle perceptually annoyed with everyone and everything. He’s racist, sexist and an all-around first class SOB. Perhaps anyone who’s ever been pestered on a plane by a child when you’d prefer just to relax, might sympathize a little with this jerk. Some of the putdowns he dishes out to the adults (and even some kids) are downright nasty in nature but they’re so creatively written that you’ll find your self gasping and laughing almost at the same time. The attitude is usually the kind of stuff I hate. Vulgarity is no substitute for wit. Yet Andrew Dodge’s script is intelligently irreverent. It doesn’t rely on mere shock value. Plus the drama doesn’t hold up Guy as someone to emulate. There is an ultimate point to the madness.
For most of the picture, Bad Words’ dark outlook means to subvert clichéd Hollywood tales where the optimistic adult inspires a youngster to be a better person. If Bad Words is guilty of a legitimate offense, it would be in betraying its initial politically incorrect premise with an ending that devolves into saccharine schmaltz. The change in atmosphere doesn’t ring true because it’s a complete sellout of the acerbic first half. A sincere but awkward 10 year old proves to be his undoing. Pint sized actor Rohan Chand is a genuinely sweet presence. He is really winning as Chaitanya Chopra. The descent into sentiment is both the screenplay’s weakness and success. It’s hard not to appreciate Chand’s toothsome tyke who balances out a lot of the nastiness. The saga still treats Guy Trilby as a misanthrope. But it makes Jason Bateman’s character easier to take because the child becomes his comic foil. Underlying the “clutch the pearls” shenanigans is a moral center that has its heart in the right place. You might roll your eyes at the resolution, but you’ll savor the warmth as well.